Usually, I don't think I would have bothered with Kingdom Hearts OST. Squaresoft's output over the last few years didn't impress me for the most parts, and lord knows I'm no big fan of Disney. And seeing the previews of the game, I don't think that the KH game is my style, exactly. Then, why did I get it? Two words will suffice: Yoko Shimomura. I've been a big fan of Shimomura since before I even knew about her. From the powerful blasts of "Street Fighter 2", through the intense techno and rock of "Parasite Eve 1", to the over-worldly prowess and majestic fantasy-themes of "Legend Of Mana", she has almost never failed me.
I say "almost", because I'm no big fan of her "Super Mario RPG OST". I've noticed that Shimomura's weakest point is (with some brilliant exceptions) the more light-hearted themes, which SMRPG was chock-full of. Therefore I somewhat feared that Kingdom Hearts would fare the same fate. But, luckily, I was wrong. After just listening to the first four tracks I was very happy indeed, and after completing my first time through the CD, I was, as always, spellbound.
A fine job she did, indeed! Where to start? Why not at the beginning? The opening piece, "Dearly Beloved", is a sweet piano bit that sounds just like the kind of fair fairy tale-style music the game needs. It's kind of slow, but there is an unmistakably "magical" quality to it, like the feeling of floating on gentle clouds. It is a simple piece, yes, but it is not short on emotion, that is for sure. While not being predominant, the piano makes several appearances throughout the score, but strings, guitars and wild percussion are also thrown into the mix. And not to forget orchestral elements. The first indication of this is track 04 on disc 1 ("Dive Into The Heart -Destati-"). A theme that will become quite familiar to the listener appears for the first time in this composition. It starts out fairly quiet and simple with lush choirs, and gains strength, evolving into an orchestral piece vibrating with power. It always astounds me how sophisticated Shimomura's orchestral compositions can be, especially if you take into account the fact that she doesn't sacrifice any of the melodic power. Any fan of Legend Of Mana's music will feel a smile stretching across his/her face when hearing track 04 - the kinship with the similar pieces from LOM (like "Earth Painting") is something no one can dismiss. Powerful, grand, but never without a strong melody that firmly takes a place in the back of your head and refuses to leave.
Most of the OST is made up of calm, happy music. The touch is very light-hearted, very reminiscent of music you'd expect to hear in a cartoon. Listening to it is very strange - while not directly groundbreaking, you still feel that the score possesses unique qualities. There are many happy and whimsy game soundtracks out there, but I could never confuse any of them with Kingdom Hearts. Being all sunshine and such, there is of course a downside. The general frame of the OST doesn't allow too much stepping out of the boundaries. So, unfortunately, there isn't much of the old trademark Shimomura rock/techno here. Fans of the mighty guitar blasts heard in PE1 and LOM might find themselves being disappointed, and I would say that, despite all the ravings heard about them, the action tracks/battle themes in KH are one of the album's weaker points. Of course, they're far from being bad, but don't expect another "Pain The Universe" or "Primal Eyes". That being said however, there are some superb action tracks. I don't know whether "Night Of Fate" is supposed to be a boss battle theme, but it sure rocks. Not "rocks" in the general Shimomura sense (since it doesn't use guitars), but it is very fast-paced, using both piano, wild drumming and some violins. It is without doubt one of the highlights of the CD, and the "integral piano" style reminds me of Hamauzu's work for Final Fantasy 10 (which one of course can take in many ways). There are also some panic-style tracks like the incredible (but short) "No Time To Think". On second thought, "No Time To Think" sounds like you'd expect a Shimomura "hurry"-theme to sound - strip it down to the bare basics and you've got the same root as in for example Parasite Eve's "Escape From UB". Most other action-oriented tracks are wonderfully crafted, but overall lacking the kind of power LOM had to show for itself.
Well, the game doesn't seem like it will need that kind of power-rock, anyway. As I previously stated, it is comprised of mostly happy, bouncy, sweet music. A good example is "Mickey Mouse Club March". This track sounds very happy and care-free. It could be one of the few arrangements of classic Disney music that are present on this CD. Unfortunately, I can't tell you if it is or not, since my knowledge of Disney music is very limited. The only one I was able to pinpoint was "Under The Sea", which is the theme of the Little Mermaid, if I'm not mistaken. One thing that is unmistakable though is the quality of "Under The Sea" - very happy, very bouncy, and VERY good. The mellow tracks on the CD cover almost the entire rainbow of calm feeling. There are slow, sad tracks (like "Kairi I"), bouncy, fast tracks like the aforementioned "Under The Sea" and the wonderful "Blast Away! Gummi Ship"-themes (I'm especially fond of the second one, the last track on disc 1). And then there are happy-go-lucky pieces like "Bustin' Up On The Beach", which comes very close to sounding cheesy. But they are very melodic, and still manage to impress me every time I hear them. Some tracks though, for example "Bustin' Up On The Beach", will be recognized easily by the experienced Shimomura-fan - in fact one part of that particular track sounds much like LOM's "Pastoral". But it's no big deal when it sounds so fabulous. And (for me, at least) it comes as a pleasant surprise that the KH OST sounds more like Legend Of Mana than Super Mario RPG. In fact, if I were to sum up this OST in a sentence for another Shimomura fan who hasn't heard it yet, I would say; "Imagine an entire OST made up (mostly) of Legend Of Mana's quieter moments". Of course this is generalization to some degree, but nonetheless it is a fitting analogy. Continuing on the LOM-trail are such tracks as "Having A Wild Time" and the wonderful "Deep Jungle". Tracks like these are what adventure music is all about, and especially "Deep Jungle" is very reminiscent of LOM.
There is also one of those vocal themes present on the album - "Hikari". I'm definitely NOT a fan of most of these pop-esque affairs, the majority of them come off as cheesy and insignificant to me, and more often than not they have absolutely nothing at all to do with the game. I have no idea if "Hikari" is somehow related to the storyline of Kingdom Hearts, but somehow it isn't quite as bad as most others of its kind. The first time I heard this song was late one night and I was very sleepy, and then I actually liked what I heard. The next day I discovered that this wasn't due to my sleepiness, the song was actually pretty OK. Nothing major, but still bearable. The vocals are in Japanese, the singer does a great job, and the instrumentation is good. I actually found that I like the remixed version better, though. It is faster than the original, and gains a certain feel of attitude thanks to it.
I could probably go on and on and on about the great compositions on this album, but I think I've given an adequate description of what to expect from Kingdom Hearts OST. Actually, even though I find this album excellent, I still feel that this is one of Shimomura's weaker albums overall. Sometimes you get a little fed up with the happy-peppy feel of it. While not a new "Front Mission" or "Legend Of Mana", it is still great, no doubt there whatsoever. So far it is the best game music album of 2002, and if you're looking for something sunny to light a smile in your face, don't hesitate! This is a soundtrack you shouldn't miss.